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#464210 - 04/17/14 12:04 PM
O) Conversation Overheard
Loc: American South
Swan river flows along a path never intended for human feet. A larger river, two hundred miles long, called “French,” is what Swan leads to. Ground is first broke in the eighteenth century along Christian Creek, a tributary of Swan river by David, a soldier redeeming a land grant at the point where the water “English” and the water “French” meet.
The forest kills the soldier. There are rumors of humans – not of Christ, but of Nature instead. On foot, the soldier's wife, children, and female slave flee sixteen miles to the nearest Christian fort. The soldier's brother and his sister's husband return for justice and the corpse. Months pass in the forest. The wife, children, and female slave return, and the extended family arrive to settle at the mouth of Bee Tree.
War breaks. Union forces are pushed away to the north by a platoon of mostly locals.
Union forces return.
On October second, eighteen eighty, a railroad reaches the city of Ashe. On November twentieth, nineteen thirty, eight of the nine local banks fail. Only Wachovia remains due to infusions of cash from other sources. Though Ashe owes fifty million due to the building of roads and buildings, Ashe refuses to default, then remains impoverished. Everything is properly preserved for fifty years before the debt is finally paid in full.
“Even a class A,” he says. “Of course I cannot compete with your previous salary,” the store manager says, interviewing me in the newspaper, books, and magazine section of a coffee house surrounded by a grocery store.
“No, of course.”
“... No, the house is on the line where the two properties meet ...” says a woman reaching up for ricotta cheese.
Despite the high-turnover rate, most employees have worked here at least a decade. I only have four actual coworkers. We are called the Milk Men.
“ … The two families came home from church,” she's saying to someone. “The brothers and the father of the one family then murder the brothers and the father of the other family ...”
I work mostly on my own but for Wally, a likeable, jolly oddity with gray hair and glasses. He's worked here twenty-seven years and works a part time job in fast food to make ends meet. This shift works three sections: milk, eggs, and juice, in that order of importance, each section taking an hour or two of work. Other sections are only done once a day each. Working on the floor at a grocery store of a recently-small mountain town will make you want to stop drinking the water, but it's something to be surrounded by such literate folks.
“ … Then they come back to dinner. The house is where the sister lived. After dinner they killed the last brother, her husband.”
“You know me?” says Cooke. “'Cause I know you.”
Turns out she's November's daughter, married to a graduate from Rustic. She makes no secret she goes to meetings and lives by the twelve steps, and especially that she can recognize any substance in the system of anybody by nothing else but their eyes. She runs the kitchen of the store's Deli and introduces me to Butcher, who works on the other side of the store, behind a counter of select cuts. He's an old Vietnam medic renowned for painting local scenes on canvases. He tells jokes like he's Roger Dangerfield secretly desperate to teach life's most important, vulgar secrets.
Afterward she introduces me to Gardner, surrounded by his bins of produce in the third corner of the store – another Vietnam vet – who likes to talk politics and is one of the few who can throw verbal barbs with Cooke. He stands short and wiry and moves with a unique walk – all them road marches.
“It's not their fought only us old people can tell the difference between journalism and production journalism,” he tells me with a casual sense of humor as he shows me his bin – lush, blood red apples.
“In the end it won't matter whose to blame,” I reply.
He continues implying the world is incestuous, same as insider trading and cynergy. He claims there is no such thing as journalism, only media now.
“All journalism in America is inherently corrupt … “ I ask him, refusing to believe him while he looks at me as if surprised someone-already-old-enough-to-vote didn't know that already.
“Beeeeeeen,” Cooke always calls to me from the Deli's corner. “Where you been?”
Larke, a twenty-one-year-old, works nights in Video: “He graduated high school in two-thousand six and went straight into the Marines,” he says. “In the winter of two thousand seven we showed up for his graduation at Paris Island, South Carolina. I busted my hand in with the lid of the trunk of our car … I stood there for a long time with it closed and my hand crushed because I didn't want to break my fingers. They took me to the Military hospital and I was refused treatment because I was civilian. My brother had been promoted to Lance Corporal and we thought he'd be promoted again at graduation but instead they gave it to some fat chick who had been recycled three times – she had more time in service. My brother was the platoon – or whatever – leader throughout boot camp because he was that kind of guy, a good worker, then staying up til four and five in the morning to return letters. He would be fired from his position regularly – usually in time for the weekend, when they would give it to someone else for awhile, but by Monday he had it again. I remember him giving me a tour of the barracks and another graduating Marine was there. A Drill Instructor stepped in and the Marine kept referring to himself as “This recruit.” The Drill Instructor had to tell him he was graduated now. It scared me, him being brainwashed like that.”
The harsh, beautiful girl runs the mid-level bureaucracy of the school in a building of waiting rooms. Where professors, deans, and department heads are not required, she is, to a population of students who truly believe. There are posters of “cool” nerds, and “jock” computer analysts throughout the school, even billboards out on the highway implying that those in school have made a conscious choice to be an American with a future. While taking the school's placement exams, it took me an extra hour and a half. The harsh, beautiful girl kept standing outside the glass room of computers, looking in with an expression of concern on her face.
I run into her at the downtown library, where the homeless pretend to be studious while Ashe's newest arrivals use the internet. She has moved here.
“Not because of you,” she says as her fingers trail the book bindings of the library shelves. “Work. I didn't know you had set up here.”
“I can't remember what it was that you did.”
She gives me a look.
“You're good at it,” she says softly. “Running into people.”
Montana is an obvious burner – promotion-wise.
“You're too young to be this much of a mess,” I tell him as he he clocks in, pulls his blood red uniform over an undershirt, then tucks into khaki's.
“He likes you,” the night manager says later. “He said it was like talking to a dictionary.”
“Yeah, I like him a lot.”
She was born and raised here, survived the elementary and high schools and conformed well to magazines. Her eyes remind me of Kenley, as if Ashe was once a rural town I used be some sort of foster kid at.
“He has a temper,” she says.
I watched part of a documentary once where a female director had filmed a script similar to “American Pie,” except the genders had been switched and the writings were kept realistic. “No distributors,” the director said. Though only twenty-three, the night manager knows these women like the back of her hand. She seems to know that I have never met such women.
She also works across the street from the grocery at an Italian Restaurant, different because it is all from scratch, but good. Somehow everyone knows my name but I already knew them before I realized she worked here. They have a familial environment like they want to be a home for art.
“Don't fall asleep at that bar,” she says as she wipes tables against the large French doors open onto the street.
I awaken, not realizing I was watching her. She had paused a moment and looked out the doors into the lights, buildings, and concrete, a tray held up in the flat of her hand.
“You almost looked Italian, there.” I reply.
“What does that mean?” she says.
“I got my G-E-D after I got back.”
“How'd you join the military,” Montana says as he finishes pushing a row of four carts into a line with the rest of them. The night is damp, but not cold. He saves one cart to put the full trash bags in as he empties the cans in front of the grocery store.
“At first they didn't accept what I'd been using as documents to get by,” I finally answer. “The recruiter rejected the paperwork. I had to find a – what is it called, those people who make documents official – a notary – who would stamp it.”
“I live at the vet house,” I tell Cooke as I pull the heaviest of her trays out of the standing oven. “Southwest of the big house.” Cornbread in the shape of muffins, jalapeno and cheddar already mixed in the dough, cast iron so heavy I wonder Cooke's small frame.
“That ain't the vet house,” she says with a laugh from the kitchen's island where she prepares pies of Gardner's apples. Everything I don't know makes her eyes sparkle, like she's pleasantly surprised. “Hope you don't hate women,” she says. “Maybe you'll be alright.”
I always respond to such words like it's the most common, most understandable question. “Choosin morality over women can't be the worst thing in the world.”
She laughs heartily as she washes her hands and fixes me a plate, then darts her eyes at the cash register reminding me to pay my five dollars to the new kid, me wondering her laugh. Back in the kitchen I compliment her food between bites, standing in the doorway of the Deli's make-shift office, while she tells me, “Yeah, you'll be alright at the vet house.”
In the chow hall of Rustic, a film plays to no one.
Antony Hopkins must hint toward his employer's soon-to-be-married, but father-less, godson that sex exists.
“With the arrival of spring . . . ” Antony Hopkins says to Hugh Grant. “We shall see a remarkable and profound change in all surroundings.”
I take a short cut through the maze of hedges as a black bear lifts itself into an industrial trash bin to my left, on the other side of moonlit forest green. Her cub must be somewhere.
Inside the girl's dormitory Magic Mike plays on the television as I await paperwork for Brock, one them good ol' boys who inherited something either discredited or stolen from me or neither. So far we rarely if ever speak to each other; both of us know we have that little in common. He is all natural, incapable of wrongdoing, even after he has done enough wrong things to end up here. He looks like that guy from John Tucker Must Die, only Caucasian with deeply sage eyes. It was clear he had somehow lived his life without having to compete in the race to any extent like mine, he was already a winner, like Royal, one of SFC Denton's “killers.”
"How's your recovery going?" he deadpanned on my third day and his fourth, as we cleaned the common areas of the barracks.
"'Still follow the original prescription," I told him abstractly, figuring I could turn it into a joke, as I wiped down the lids and sides of the washers and driers. "Letting anonymity allow a sense of safety and freedom at the same time. 'Kept having to murder my audience down though, and walk through shoes I used to find --"
"--Is that one of the twelve steps?" he asked me.
On Charlie Rose at some point, as I walk the aisles of the college library:
“... these families of artists incidentally creating … “
says some sort of director.
Though he is seventeen Montana keeps calling her his fiance. As we cashier and bag groceries I lecture him on the temple of marriage – it can only stand by way of two, equally powerful, separate columns. Her coming by the grocery is a rarity, so quick he points her out to me.
“Montana, that is not a wife, that's a teenage girl.”
“She's nineteen,” he says in defense.
Early as dawn is about to break, I half sleep on my bag against the backseat of Rustic's sixteen passenger van. We are all on our way somewhere, but I do not mind being last because everyone allows me the back to sleep.
This time, one of my favorite people here, River, drives while telling an angry story over classic rock. “If I wanted to do that I'd just take my big dick to the bathroom and jerk the fuck off ...”
He has said this in front of the morning staff meeting. Again, a girl from the other dormitory has been caught trying to send him a letter.
River is obvious, classic, a dynamic storyteller because upon being confronted by the staff he took the opportunity not only to win, but stick up for others here especially concerning present “drama.” Like when a roommate of mine advised a virgin, groom-to-be, “Just FUCK it.” I laughed.
Even if River's antics were only to further put the image in the girls' minds, he is everything an addict is supposed to be. Hence, they keep him around staff meetings.
Brock and I sit in the van alone as River goes in to pay for fuel.
There are people on dates in and out of the station, on their way to parties or clubs. The guys wear purposely-name-brand attire. “Like they're wearing redneck 'costumes,'” I say.
Thirty seconds later Brock busts out laughing. “It is like they're wearing redneck costumes.”
“It's music he jammed while coming off of Lithium,” River is saying as he drives through the night. I sit shotgun.
“Why are you here,” he asks me. The route has taken us into an area where there have been no cars coming either way but ours. River flicks the overheads regularly, as if to remember if they are on or off.
“I turned out to be someone else.”
We listen to the music a long time: a certain part of where the electric guitars sound organic, rough, bluesy.
“Maybe who you were intended to be is better than the one you wanted to be,” he says, accelerating onto the interstate.
The piano score of the film, “The Social Network,” has been stuck in my head for weeks, out of nowhere, considering the years since my hearing it. A piano with a certain base-like sound, one piano note at a time, slowly, only several notes over and over.
“Your brainwashing is developing nicely.”
Inside Rustic's foyer, comfortable couches surround a large television, its low light directed away from the corner reception. Half-standing, Nerube motions from the counter and desk, then hands over the yellow phone.
It is Irby, from Second Platoon:
I look at the floor.
“College and work, work and college.”
“Oh, yeah. When'd you get out?”
“Been out one year, November.”
“Isn't it something to be out of the military?”
“Snowing under a clear sky?”
“That's the snow coming off the mountain peaks,” she says from a sip of her coffee cup, as we step out into Ashe's downtown. She's done a better job of becoming local than I have, an idea she has always found ridiculous. “It'll be like this as long as there's wind.”
“I overheard Jacob telling Brock of some fledgling website you've been keeping up,” Nerube whispers in the smokers' gazebo while giving me his best, tell-me-everything smile.
Maybe the V.A. knew the whole time. Maybe everyone has.
“Nerube,” I tell him. “It's a secret.”
“Yeah, but it's not the kind of secret anyone would believe.”
(early morning, during a raid)
“No, it must've been a lucid dream,” I find myself saying to Brock. He stands in my open bedroom doorway, curious at me sitting up in bed.
"None of those people exist," he says with a breathy smile and that way he has of being all-knowing, genuine and pleasant. He makes you want to trade an intellect for whatever he has. Out in the hall, harsh arguments compete back and forth with the blunt movement of furniture.
"At best this house is haunted and at worst people are going to call you Skits."
Ashe is a small town, somehow, I see everyone I've already met at the grocery store, regular, though in a professional manner.
Rehab is a huge secret.
I navigate by making the van drop me off at the corner.
Meanwhile the mountain downtown is full of Christmas lights, carefully put up by Rustic every year, due to an agreement between Rustic and Ashe. As I step outside the grocery store and walk the side walks, we pretend not to know each other, all kind nods, and hellos.
Though the night-manager and Larke and I have become close friends over regular midnight cigarettes, Larke wants to move to Chicago. “To learn comedy,” he says.
“Is that a thing ...”
Everything about him is a statement: from his brown professor's spectacles to his orange not-quite-moccasins. His reputation concerns his literary prowess and the fact that he will ask any girl out, anywhere, anytime. He changes his mind about pulling on his old fashioned tobacco pipe – a birthday gift from one of his several shockingly-wealthy, former schoolmates. In the store he will find them embarrassing because none of them have ever been in the work force and find our colorful language and conversation intolerable. I once made the mistake of saying Ashe's best Italian restaurants are to be found in Ashe's mostly-Italian neighborhood. “You can live like this,” he says. “Because you know who you are.”
“It helps people,” I tell Nerube. He tries to wait for River's last run each night, so he can bum a cigarette from me.
“I have no idea.”
I failed an important course in school, Human Anatomy and Physiology, BIO168, so important to my field that I should take a full semester to learn it, the professor would have more to say, more questions would be asked by students. I'll have to pay for the course in cash because the Pell Grant does not cover failed classes. I have another prerequisite mini-mester starting in a few weeks – Sociology. My work friends are proud of me; they ask about school or how I did on such and such test; I lie and say, “Fine.” My friends at Rustic roll their eyes and laugh when I say I am struggling as if it were not possible: “So you're getting a ninety-eight instead of a hundred?”
Over the holidays I was surprised to be there, them surprised to see me. They call me “Seldom Seen.”
A reporter uses the grocery aisles to peek around at me working. I've done something stupid, which explains his diabolical expression, but then I accidentally step up behind him, him still peeking around a corner. “He's really smart though … “ Jason Bateman is saying. “I respect what he put out,” Matt Damon is saying back. “But not the rest of him.” I keep trying to tell him how kismet it seemed that all the times I had been on a plane it had been this plane, flown by him, always going to the Florida homestead. Despite the environment I cannot say this to Ray as he pilots beside me because I know it is not true.
I stay at Grandma and Grandpa's homestead for weeks, awakening each morning to feed and water the animals and plants, warm the stove, start the coffee, then pick ripe fruits and flowers before stepping into their indoor greenhouse, to make sure they are awake and have made it to their thrones on a stage that is at the end of a long, red carpet littered with fallen flower pedals and leaves. While Grandma samples a tray of nearby perfumes Grandpa keeps trying to tell me, “He thinks you have no love.”
Each night I work as a milkman at the grocery except it is the huge building and parking lot of the general store of my adolescence. Inside are all the female relatives, each wearing carefully chosen outfits under their aprons and not-quite-blonde versions of brunette hairstyles. To my relief they pretend not to know me, turning up their expressions and spinning away like actresses doing ballet. A celebration begins in the parking lot full of amusement park events, whole buildings made of air-filled plastic, employees, and large groups of children attended by chaperones. Tonight as Ray flies me to work in the dust-cropper-sized plane, he is suddenly gone, the full moon my only source of light while the plane glides toward the ground in smaller and smaller circles.
Though the dash of the plane is of a worn Eighties sports car I glide one circle after another, frightened to land with no power. The plane hits the parking lot like a car swinging into a parking space. Angry and haughty for the interruption, both sisters and Aunt Karen are waiting as I exit the plane, flush with good luck and sudden accomplishment. I keep trying to explain how I managed all the way to the ground without taking anyone out, nor poking any of the buildings with my wings.
I wake soaked in sweat despite the cool air of an open window, shower, and catch the van to the downtown grocery.
Late that night, behind the store, Montana finds me sneaking a cigarette. Hot with anger, he tries to explain to me how he his yearly evaluation keeps being delayed now that it has come out that most other employees have been started out at a much higher wage than what he makes, despite his being promoted, work-wise, long past them.
“It's my fault,” I tell him. “I encouraged performance without telling you to protect yourself.”
“You didn't go to high-school,” he says loudly, trying to get me to understand that he is not naive. “It's been like this all along – principals, teachers, coaches giving preference to some, shitting on others, one story coming out after another. It will never change.”
Near end of shift I smoke a cigarette with the night manager while walking her to her old Camry, lost in thought. “Sometimes you come across to me like some sort of retired human being,” she says at some point.
“... remember when he was watching your laptop at the coffeehouse, when I accidentally paged you to the front during your break?” she is saying.
“Hey … if a comedian has to be able to stay straight in order to do comedy, and an actor has to be able to lie, then a writer would already be able to – ”
“I saw him steal something off of it … he had a flashdrive.”
She turns and faces me as if she has no time for jokes.
“My existence alone destroys his civilization,” I reply quick, defensive. “What if the Ivy Leagues find out I was born outside one of the pre-approved neighborhoods? I have bigger problems – Brit—I'm telling you – it is already impossible for the writings to be – plagiarized.”
“How is it whenever you say 'bosslady,' Montana thinks you're talking about me?”
“I thought Capitalism was crazy because it required human character--”
“--hopefully we're the exception, Dakota.”
“Yeah, right,” he says. “You've got something to do with this bookstore.”
We pull up in his new car, an Eighties boxy sedan, him smiling, me hiding in his “too-big-for-me” hoodie. He exhales, watching the pedestrians walk the sidewalk under dusk.
“I survived the Americans, Dakota. Did Iraq … Now we're doing this.”
He looks like he was born in God's Country, while having features that help him pass for a wiry surfer dude with short, blonde hair. He tends to wear form-fitting skater-clothes. He always treats me incredulously, ever since he started at the grocery.
“With each sale the price doubles. I'm sorry Dakota, but you're short and lithe, and with the way you move you could easily swing from trees, you need to start thinking of someone as a bodyguard."
“I go in, see if the book is there. If not, ask the blonde if it has been sold, she'll ask if I'm the author, I say no I work for the publisher, she gives me the envelope, then we go to kinko's, or whatever that place is called.”
“Quick, because I gotta meet Montana.”
“Yeah, I've gotta get to church,” he says. “Wait – I thought I was Montana.”
“First of all,” Isaac says, smooth and easy-loud with an almost-deepness that might sound like certainty. “Why you like that; why not walk into a room with a little aggression.”
“Aggression,” I say.
He always seems to be playing the best music, most of which I've never heard. “It's because it's the music you've been listening to your whole life,” he is saying.
“Thing is,” Isaac says later, as we are sitting around his dining table over dice being rolled. His wife and five children are already asleep in rooms down a dark hallway.
I met Isaac by accident, not realizing that Daniel already knew his neighbors. “Never seen a redneck Latino before,” I said to Daniel. “He's Native American,” Daniel replied.
“You're liable to pull in a hot babe, maybe a knockout,” Isaac continues.
I blush. Ashley, Daniel's half-Native friend laughs. She looks like every young girl who ever served me food in Oklahoma. We are all of similar ages. Ashley has had major surgeries concerning Scoliosis since she was four but one could never tell. Isaac finds Daniel to be one of his best friends.
“As I understand it this is a tribe and you're the tribal leader … “ I say.
“Okay!” Isaac exclaims with a laugh. “First, let's drink on that.”
“It's comments like that--” he continues, but then Ashley and Daniel laugh, so he laughs too, rich and laid back.
I rise as Isaac rises to get another beer. I hand one to Isaac in his dark kitchen lit by the refrigerator.
“Have I ever offended you,” Isaac says quietly.
“No,” I reply. “I doubt it.”
“You keep secrets.”
Outside, Ashley smokes alone. “Pain,” she tells me. “It got old. Made the future seem impossible and kept me – angry.” She pulls on her cigarette, looking out across the night sky from Isaac's front porch, her silhouette tall, defiant. “So when I was fifteen I flushed my useless meds and began a – drug phase.”
Inside, they are talking about “The Green Mile,” a film I still have not gotten all the way through. “The gay guy … “ I ask.
“The French actor,” Ashley says.
“No, the one who kills the mouse.”
“Oh, he's not gay,” she replies with an inquisitive laugh.
“I'm turning into a Wilton,” I say, leaning Charlie Brown.
Later, Isaac and I are smoking cigarettes outside alone.
“You always manage to be in the shadows,” Isaac says. “What you a coywolf --”
#471999 - 11/01/14 01:32 AM
Re: O) Conversation Overheard
Loc: American South
Stepping outside, down a path separating the house from the main-house, I sneak a cigarette in thick fog.
“You know, some people express themselves naturally along the way,” comes Brock's smooth, deep-toned growl. “Instead of trying to be ultra-perfect all the time.”
Montana was cut awhile back and can do little about it but find a second job. I am to either open my availability all the way and accept an “official” full-time job, or keep accepting only twenty-hours a week, instead of the usual forty. The hours were cut due to “Obama Care,” says the manager.
“Do I agree as a manager that a person who is in a situation with a parent or kids who needs health insurance should therefore be given the full time slot as opposed to the person who earned it?” he says. “And now that person must scrape by on only twenty-eight hours? No.”
Obama Care remains too complicated to defend.
“You think God isn't doing what is best for your life?” he asks with that smile that looks both mischievous and over confident. He looks the opposite of whom he truly is, so I never really met him until we realized we both knew Irby. Others here comment to Nerube that Seldom Seen lights up and acts completely different if I'm talking to him.
“Just because there is a God does not mean he is good,” I reply.
Last week he was a passionate atheist interested in the exact structure of the universe. He always has big dreams, seems easily bored, lively, oddly impatient with the indecisive. Nerube tells me his life as if nothing has ever gone wrong and he is as good as everyone. I tell him he could get away with the whole thing if maybe he changed on the inside, like how Matt Damon looks into a dresser's mirror with the look of a football quarterback as he plays The Talented Mr. Ripley.
“The changes may be painful, worrisome, and a lot of trouble,” he says, his thin gold necklace twinkling streetlight. “But he is doing his best for you always.”
Brock always stands and moves and sleeps with a certain innocence. It's only when his voice is raised dealing with some situation in the main house that you pick up on the opposite. “Well someone saw something.”
“Some publisher of an anonymous author who isn't me.”
Guys workout to the point it's hard not to wonder a joke. Maybe guys like Brock had to get their confidence back up as quickly as possible for survival or great undertaking. Some guys can do it, I figure, because they're not competing with each other.
“Skits ... ” he says as statement.
“I believe the book is only being bought for the photographs. It is not read … probably … It gives me a few twenties. They're safe from plagiarism. My Facebook is tight.”
Sometimes he accidentally inspires someone to handle things a similar way, thinking maybe they are as good, but they're never quite Brock.
“People here know that lifestyle already … ” he says, lowering his voice. “ … Why are you sleeping every other night?”
“Work, so that the writings are not erroneously labeled.”
Outside, the air has turned cold and wet. We move to close the windows. In these mountains you could swear you experienced all four seasons in the one day. Word is, Brock's “gullible.” I only picked up on it once. Several men above his rank seem to have sway over his moment-to-moment opinion, but Brock's character tends to outrank theirs. Once, I stepped into the house-manager's office to catch-a-ride and the female drivers were there, treating him well, while he threw back playful, verbal-barbs in a pleased, 'aw-shucks' manner.
“It doesn't even have a title,” he says.
"I was thinking of The Accident," I tell him. "At most it will be a bad novel."
But I don't think I should help anymore,” one genius alien – semi-human with blue skin – says to another genius alien – a slime covered semi-caterpillar, in the animated film, “Escape from Planet Earth,” 2013. They are about to attempt escape from Area 51 where they are being forced to invent things like the internet, high definition television, smart phones – and the most powerful weapon in the universe. The non-geniuses have been frozen alive and are kept in storage.
“Are you getting paranoid?” replies the semi-caterpillar. “It happens to the best of us. You're really smart, then you start thinking too much, then you start getting paranoid –”
A group of teenage boys who work at the store have seemed over-concerned about my social status. Within the group, status changes constantly for a myriad of irrelevant reasons. I ignore them despite their offers of friendship because they are all actually in their twenties, so their voices and body language come across as bizarre and sad. They mutter “impotent” every chance they get because I do not seem to date. Supposedly they only want to know how fine a competitor I am; they only want information. Standing up to someone has always been the easiest way to make a friend, but I have already met them and do not fall for that trick either.
Finally, as Montana is helping me block dairy, one of their members accosts me, slyly talking locker-room while mentioning as many of my friends as possible. He looks like a tall, brunette elf, and has the reputation for saying “Word on the street is … “ regularly as if he is the word on the street due to his unceasing gossiping and text-messaging.
I turn away from my work and tell him “I'm African-American, dyslexic, castrated, homosexual, and illiterate. 'You got some sort of problem with that?”
Apparently the last sentence is heard six aisles down by Brit, not to mention's Montana's laugh, so she splits us up. I cashier while Montana bags. He talks about the show “New Girl” due to Zooey Deschanel, which airs on Fox. He doesn't watch “The Mindy Project” though it comes on right after and the protagonists' attitudes and situations are similar.
“If I wanted to watch a gay-bashing feminist," I tell him. "I'd turn on 30Rock."
“Read your novel,” Larke says later, as I walk past Video.
Maybe he knows he was caught by Brit; maybe his opinion of me is so low he doesn't care.
“It's like you told the truth so well you never told the truth at all.”
"I found you," he says in his quickly-walking rush throughout the empty, main rooms of the house. "Did I not find you? Tell me I didn't find you."
No point in following him around, no one else is in the house. If I follow, he'll check out the house and my expression. Used to be teenagers were slight and fleeting, a whole fresh culture in an instant. Then the pre-teens started being teenagers on purpose, then didn't know what to do as teenagers. Now they are unreadable, that fresh, that intelligent. So far his ideals seem awfully high, his philosophy more an addiction to true things.
"You know the woods are haunted all around here," he calls to me from a hallway of bedrooms; I can almost see him flicking his brown hair every so often like a teenage Justin Bieber. "Turn a bend and some Civil War soldier is standing there, looking at you. 'Never made it all the way to the house before. Got to take the last part by foot," he says louder now, reentering the parlor.
Whenever he acts this happy, he is likeable. It also means something in his life has recently gone wrong.
“Yeah, you must drive through the entrance.”
With Montana standing looking-out into the shadows, I race into the woods north of the house where two hills meet and form a small, drying creek. With a too-big shovel, I feverishly plant the corn kernels with a piece of salmon as the thunderstorm claps and strikes.
I see the woman standing there watching me in a yellow coat and stop. The woods separating the house from the rest of Rustic swing, the treetops swaying above us as I stand up all the way. "It's only that a few multi-billion dollar conglomerates will come after me."
Her laugh splits the rain and wind; the storm lifts, only the swaying tree tops above dripping water.
"It's all very serious actually."
As I help Nerube move into his new room he tells me of how when he called home his dad picked up instead. As he shows me his new room on the first floor he talks abstractly of his mother and his childhood. His room has no bunks, but two regular beds instead, windows that open, and a door and porch at the end of the hall that sticks out the middle of a steep hill.
“Jacob thinks you'll be President one day,” he tells me with the usual excited twinkle in bright, brown eyes.
I lean against his wall, then look away from him as he continues setting up his half of the room.
“I think Hollywood could make you famous,” he says. “'Cause the show goes on come hell or high-water.”
Outside his window, clouds move across the moon.
“Brock thinks people are going to start walking up to you, trying to give you medals.”
“Nerube, no one wants any of those things to happen.”
“He's taller than me,” Dakota says.
With his one black-eye, Levis stands maybe 5',6” inches tall, bony-skinny, has a triangle-of-a-chin, and if-shaven, looks maybe-nineteen. He hails from a small, Christian town in the mountains, crippled by methe and legal. He always looks hopeful, if not haggard. If he's shaved and wearing his Deli cap, he looks something out of a Norman Rockwell.
“His brother's a real mess,” Dakota says. “He's the one everyone's afraid of.”
The most famous story in Iraq, point-of-view, was of the four-man-squad who took a building. Three continue inside while one watches the door. “You needed crazy-eyes,” they always said.
“The Ivy Leagues do not feed off the middle class,” I tell them. “Same as lions do not feed off limping gazelles, same as the educated do not feed off the uneducated, and the strong do not feed off the weak. Our civilization is 'ADVAnced,'”
“I don't believe you,” Levis says.
“It's a tabloid, right?” Montana says, trying his best.
“It's The Wall Street Journal.”
“The guy who kept snapping pictures while Princess Diana bled out.”
“He bugged the nine-eleven families.”
“More like … he would have.”
“He's credited for the technique of encouraging low-self esteem just in time for commercials. It's why the fictional characters in the fictional worlds always have spectacular sex lives. It's how they sell their ideas.”
“Actually, it-girls had already begun doing that to their own gender.”
“We learned about it in high-school,” he says with his winning smile. “My teacher said he can probably get away with it as long as he never markets to adolescents.”
“Overall, he's right about Arabia, Persia, and the Middle East, though.”
During the trial run, Dakota drives while Levis watches the road.
“Maybe you're already in the habit of defending Clintons,” Levis says.
Levis knows history in an effortless, up-to-date way that never seems hard-earned – “highschool,” he tells me.
Through a slit in Dakota's dark, wool blanket, Ashe speeds by in pastel colors and twinkling lights. Levis never wears denim, but Dakota wears his Dad's old blue-jean jacket, a relic from before they went metro; the edge of its collar shows above his headrest.
“Do you think President Clinton's a genius?” says Dakota.
“Let's say both me and Mozart hear Bill Clinton utter the word 'genius.' We'd both receive the same information.”
“No one would let Hollywood anywhere near their family,” I tell Nerube after running into him in Rustic's parking lot. "Plus everyone knows all celebrities know how to say is We know you want to be just like us."
“You sure they know that?” he asks as we walk toward the smoker's gazebo. “I like how the reader has no choice but to defend your relatives,” he says in that way where he wants you to believe his intelligence but also couldn't care less. Yesterday in the chow hall I caught him looking at me from a table across the room with a certain expression. He looked away like he didn't want me to catch him in my peripheral.
“Yeah me too …“
He talks cocky and joking while his eyes look worried we might not be cosmically connected stars crossing paths but dust in the wind, forever under the wind's authority.
“I've been watching TV,” Montana says lowly as he cashiers and I bag.
“Careful not to rot your brain.”
Usually, we talk girls. Most of the time when he turns a girl down, they try to call him gay, despite the obvious, while whenever I turn a girl down she immediately diagnoses me, complete with references and bibliography. Lately, we can only talk about girls to each other because otherwise girls try to trick you into sleeping with them while guys turn out to be desperately competing with you the whole time.
All the customers look at Montana like he's hope for the future. Their eyes light up when he engages them. They treat him like people treated preacher's kids in Wilton. There's a reason why everyone knows Montana, but he rarely talks about it.
“They're trying to hijack your soul,” he says.
His eyes should be blue, they're so piercing, but they're brown with flecks of hazel. I hand off a cart of bagged groceries to an elderly woman who goes to Montana's church.
“This has been going on longer than now, Montana. Why do you think they were reading it in the first place …” I tell him. “They want money; they'll use propaganda to pressure me; they'll use the times to talk sense into me, they'll market directly to me to see if they can brainwash me back into a civilian.”
“You've got to fight back,” he says.
“But I don't want to be a pirate.”
“It's better for my daughter here,” Lyndsay is saying, as Marcus sits back down beside her. She still has the same long, straight blonde hair, still boy-crazy as if there was such a thing as whatever she sees in them.
I'm not the best at the grill, so I have no future here. It's hilarious the ones who can handle thirty steaks at one time – one was a homeless-teenager type, lives the good life now, flipping steaks the only thing he'd had to offer.
“I like the structure here,” she says. “My daughter will still be raised within a cautionary tale, sure ...”
My cooking is preferred, otherwise, and Tango's kitchen never stresses that I am one of the few who does not speak Spanish. Late at night I work as a bartender, helping with downtown Ashe's after-show crowd.
“Father's farther away, plus mine, but everything's better.”
Jacob and Brock sit in the round booth in a corner of the dark restaurant. I felt it best to ask forgiveness instead of permission. They must've left a meeting; there are several regular ones downtown due to Church St., an old landmark-of-a-street nearby.
“Marco asks about you,” Marcus says.
Back then, concerning Marco, it was like I stole Marcus's best friend, his comedy and curiosity was so sharp, vibrant, and genuine. It was only when I left Wilton that Marco leaned toward the majority again. He called me his marriage counselor, his best friend and confidant.
“In Washington D.C., we were all best friends,” Lyndsay is saying. “How is it ever going to be like that again?”
Outside, on a cigarette break, as the usual college crowd hoops and hollers their way through the front door around the corner, there's Brock smiling at me as he exhales smoke. “Skits ... ”
He looks at me half-curious.
“Brock, I thought it would last forever.”
An unexpected crowd formed due to a high-school basketball game. Ashe hasn't won like this in several years. The restaurant is trashed, music blasts, and young girls with little work-force experience run around in full drama.
“Come on,” she says, pulling my hand in the crowd. “Dance with me.”
“Noll ... I'm working.”
Billie Holiday sings the blues slow and soft for a long time, her emotions symbolic, her point of view infusing.
“I'm dating again,” she whispers nonchalantly, her hand around the base of my neck.
On the van ride back to Rustic, Brock drives, due to River being on his two-day monthly pass. He doesn't mention the restaurant, even though he picks me up from the grocery, my having freshly changed into the appropriate uniform. Once the van clears out of passengers, and Brock heads for the interstate, we sit in silence.
“Their technique is to say something intelligent, then something locker room, then intelligence, then locker-room,” I tell him as streetlights along the way sweep over us. “I wake up one morning and out of nowhere the whole industry is threatening me. They want the writings, or else.”
“Play back,” he says.
“It would degrade the work,” I tell him. “Anyway, when the opponent plays the bully card, it means its the last card they have left.”
The night sky remains heavy with clouds, hunkering in against the mountain tops, then spreading out, like paintbrush strokes of grays and blues. Light rain begins as signs appear, approaching Rustic.
After ramping off the interstate, Brock navigates the mountain roads in silence. Pulling into Rustic, Nerube waits for me in the make-shift parking lot.
“You made the world a better place,” Brock says, parking. “They're never going to let you get away with that.”
After slammed doors and commotion in the front of the house, Brock finds me sitting Indian-style on my bunk, newspapers spread out across the bed; Nerube follows close behind. “What did you do?” he asks quick, before Brock sits down on the opposite bunk. “Be quiet, Nerube,” he says.
“What's wrong ...” he asks me with his easy smile. In his church baseball uniform he looks like one of those teammates in old Joe DiMaggio photographs.
“I still don't know what they want,” I tell him.
He raises his right brow inquisitively, his sage eyes demanding. Outside the window behind his head rain pours, hitting the tin roof above us like tiny hail.
“Someone should hand them an Oscar,” says Nerube.
“SHUT up, Nerube!” yells Brock. “And you're sure they weren't trying to make the novel worse on purpose?”
“If you look at what went down,” I tell him. “It's a distinct possibility.”
Brock paces between the bunks, while Nerube keeps lookout. Sitting Indian style this long hurts.
“And there's no way it could've been mistaken for an audition?” Brock asks.
“It had safeguards from the beginning controlling readership. No matter how hetero I am, obviously I would never help anyone gay bash … They think I'm afraid of court because I have an Egon Schiele streak.”
He paces back and forth in silence.
No one knows I'm being shadowed, apparently not by locals; all I do is mess with them.
Meanwhile Dakota and Levis have seemed stressed concerning my future. (“There are bribes around,” someone said, as if to the other.
“When something valuable's around,” Dakota then said, over wind blasting and Levis rolling up his passenger window against the rain. “It can attract the worst people.”
“You should have found a woman before this happened,” Levis said turning toward the backseat. “Now what are you going to do?”)
Brock continues paces silently, clenching his jaw, then unclenching. I wonder about Jason Alexander playing Jerry Seinfeld's clown and how he barely survived it, career wise. No wonder Seinfeld didn't play the necessary final clown required. “Brock, they stole from charity and left huge digital footprints.”
“ – There's no such thing as Robin Hood charges,” I tell Brock. “Regardless what the north says. Commercialized media works against the victim, or anyone susceptible, that's its design. They can prove that something inside me has monetary value and imply that I'm too uneducated to know that it was already owned by the wealthy, but they can't prove that it means I stole from the wealthy before giving to the poor – their story is bull. They're worried I don't believe their story that the wealthy inherit the earth.”
Brock sits on the opposite bunk as we pressure him, looking at us in that way he has of being consistent and regular to the point you might catch yourself thinking you could see through him, while giving up accidental expressions as he looks back and forth between Nerube's eyes and mine.
“Brock, we witnessed the last generation being studied and manipulated and tricked out of their self-esteem, natural intelligence, and any human inheritance they might have still had. Do you really want to watch as the same thing happens to a whole nother generation … all because they have the right to vote … Look at the history books."
Supposedly The Wall Street Journal said I had 'grit,' The New York Times' literary section considered me a colleague, not a subordinate and SportsCenter said “He's Toouugh! That's for sure.” Journalists have left my relatives alone, despite vetting them all and finding each “Particularly clean, especially Grace,” but still attempt to reach bigger fish through me. Amazingly, no one exposed the underground railroad, even when not doing so went against all their previous behavior.
“They went after some guy on an online support group,” Nerube is saying. “There are no rules now.”
Isaac walks quickly in front, guiding us lugging our swim gear through his reservation as he tells of how it is his family owns a whole mountain. Somewhere there is a watering hole that marks the spot of a bootlegger's stash.
“How you know how to do that?” he asks, turning to face us.
“What … “ Ashley says casual, mean, slowly trailing her bare toes against the forest floor as Daniel leans against a tree, flushed.
“No. Not you,” Isaac says to Ashley while looking and pointing at me. “Someone's steps aren't making noise.”
In a shack-of-a-juke joint are all cedar walls and cabinetry, pinewood chairs and pool tables played under different clouds of cigarette smoke.
“Bootleg somethin', ain't it ...” Isaac is saying as we find a spot and Ashley nods hello to minglers as several ask of her sisters and brother.
“No, no,” Ashley keeps laughing as I speak to her friends. “No, no.”
After sneaking back, Montana's way, Nerube is waiting for me with a worried look and a cell phone he's not supposed to have. Soberly, he dials it, then hands it to me. “I have contacts, see?” he says quietly.
“They're vetting you,” Irby says through the phone, as Nerube leans against the wall by the door, in his usual spot as lookout. He looks back and forth from the hallway to me.
“Who...” I say, cupping my hand around the receiver end and turning away from Nerube.
“Remember how you could hear a lie, even though the hodgie was speaking a foreign language? You could even point out people on television.”
“No wonder you had skills no one had ever seen before."
After turning from the buffet toward the open counter of the kitchen, I wait for Rustic's real-world-powerful chef to add cobbler to my tray. I notice his tears as he looks at me.
“I don't understand,” I say to him.
“Only it is the extraordinary change,” he replies. “It is like mourning.”
“Yes,” I tell him, turning my head to look out the windows. “It is the mornings that are so great.”
“In the military,” Larke says over the video counter. “You never noticed a connection? Forty years isn't much compared to American culture.”
“At this point their only impact would be negative, and at best fleeting.”
Larke's brother was quarterback of a small high school where only all-stars in the local sports paper had much of a future. Larke's argument sounds as generalized and abstract as the idea that women decide the vote because they are the majority.
“The institution is beloved,” he says. “Why do you think sportswriters drop names?”
“It can't be forced into manipulating gubernatorial elections.”
“And what about you?” he asks, adjusting his spectacles, then taking them off to wipe the lenses.
Her office looks like a living room with three large windows, a wooden desk in the corner, pastel yellow walls, a tan couch, and lavender pillows. I've just left work and am still in uniform.
She hands me a cup of coffee.
"What if I accidentally proved to the White House there is no such thing as journalism in America."
"Maybe Obama is not corrupt."
"What of the White House after that," I tell her from the couch. “And the one after that.”
She sips from her navy blue coffee mug, some kind of insurance agency Christmas party. Maybe it wasn't kosher to underhandedly interrogate your therapist upon the first session. She didn't know that once sexually assaulted, macho-vernacular and locker-room-talk literally sound like jibberish, having fallen away from the English language. Front-line culture doesn't do this because it is based on war, not sex. She wondered aloud about the women assaulted back when macho-vernacular was blatantly sexist, and what it must've been like for those lone women to witness whole sentences and conversations disappearing into useless sounds.
"How serious are you …" she asks quietly.
"Precedents could be set."
She sends me to free legal aid two corners down, having promised to keep her shop open. By the time there and back, the passages are written. On her laptop I place them, rid some unnecessary fiction, and tell her of the willow tree and the pond at its base and how the white crane flew.
Outside the windows, downhill from us, the old man sings of brick and mortar, tapping his foot in the corner of the gazebo. Cold November weather settles in for the night. They call him Big Sam, though he never smiles ... gone with the wind.
“Some list of crimes,” Nerube whispered to me in the gazebo. He passes me his cigarette in the dark. “What happens when they find out you're only the guy who built the -- “
“-- had to go bush on them,” I told him over the singing. “Lean toward the history books.”
“Thing is,” I say to Brock, sitting in the house manager's office, across from his desk.
“... I'm thirty-one … ” he has said, after having performed a series of drug tests. “Don't you know by now how you ended up here?” he asks, as if he's trying to change subjects, or tact.
“It was the right thing to do,” I say suddenly official. “Because there is no God, nature has no fortifications, and the bad win, while children reason that they are monsters because only they can see the verses, not because they are now the poorest in the race."
He is speechless, his green eyes wide, thinking, while I stare at him like one of Montana's Civil War ghosts who happened upon him, wondering how it is Brock's blocking my line of sight.
“I don't understand how it was you were honorably dis--”
“--There were no acts of cowardice. Holy shit, Brock."
“What about school--Thing about today. Your strategy.”
(“Uh hey now,” sang the old man. “HEY now … “
“The unforgiven,” said Nerube.
“No rest for the wicked … ” I retorted.)
“Thing about history,” I tell Brock. “The idea of an heir, a good son.”
“Only there is no way to prove it,” he replies, looking at a test cup. “And nothing is to be done.”
“That's their spin on it.”
“Chuck … “ he says, his eyes returning. “I'm sure it is for traditional reasons.”